Have you ever experienced a wrinkle in time? I don’t mean taking a tesseract through deep space as in Madeleine L’Engle’s popular novel, but rather one of those rare moments when time stops, when the steady tick-tock of the clock ceases and the stream of life’s experiences freezes. Such a wrinkle might last for hours or only a few seconds, might be eerily transcendent or dreadfully mundane, for time stops when you are tediously bored but also when you are keenly anticipating.
The experience of wrinkles in time can happen in many different circumstances. In a class, when I give my students five minutes to free write and wait as they scribble away, the light emitting diodes on the room’s electronic reader board seem to take forever to shift their shape. Yet, when the class is engaged in a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes the good life, with many people pitching in and arguing with each other, we all may suddenly notice that the class period finished five minutes earlier. Survivors of drownings or car accidents often report an altered passage of time as their life flashes before their eyes, like a mental camera fast-forwarding even as the physical body is temporarily suspended in the moment. Smoking marijuana or ingesting psychoactive drugs can also bring time to a crawl. Athletes and gardeners alike speak of entering a fugue state in which time disappears, and both Christian and Eastern mystics describe extraordinary states during which they leave mortal time and enter an eternal now.
The human fascination with time stems, in part, from the variability between clock time—reliant on regular physical motion—and mental time—the subjective experience of time in our experiences and narratives. We all engage in mental time travel every day without tesseracts, medication, or meditation; we constantly conjure up past events that we re-live through memory, project a future action that we will eventually take, or lose ourselves in a good book—experiencing five years in a character’s life during five hours of reading. And even when presented with a stationary scene, like a photograph of a cute but mischievous looking toddler standing by an open toilet holding a yellow ducky, we tend to move through time in our minds by imagining what is shortly to ensue. Plumbers may be involved. This capacity for mental time travel appears to be a unique attribute of the human species.
One of the most famous explorations into these two types of time occurs in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. In Book 11, while meditating on God’s verbal creation of the heavens and earth, Augustine first argues that God neither speaks in time nor is in time himself: “You are the Maker of all time, and before all time You are, nor was there ever a time when there was not time!” God creates time, and no time existed before that creation. So what then is time? Augustine asks. Trying to define time in terms of physical motion, as Plato and Aristotle had done before, Augustine employs a Zeno’s paradox argument that physical time can never pass. (When does the present start or stop? When is the past gone?) Instead, he says, we can think about time only in terms of how humans experience it. While God is outside time, in the human point of view time always has a one-way direction; it moves from the future to the present to the past. Augustine writes, “if the present were always present and never flowed away into the past, it would not be time at all, but eternity. But if the present is only time, because it flows away into the past, how can we say that it is?”
Time is rather an interval of duration in human experience, for we are keenly aware of periods of time, whether long or short, past or future, and we measure time through its movement. The threefold kinds of time take place in our anima, or soul: “the present of things past is memory, the present of things present is sight, the present of things future is expectation.” By this point in Augustine’s reflections, we are almost relieved when he admits, “I confess to You, Lord, that I still do not know what time is.” And we may find his concluding paradox either a relief or pure nonsense: “And again I confess to You, Lord, that I know that I am uttering these things in time: I have been talking of time for a long time, and this long time would not be a long time unless time had passed. But how do I know this, since I do not know what time is?”
For Augustine, time cannot be defined, but it can be experienced. And our experience of time’s one-way arrow creates a unitary self that can reflect on the past and anticipate the future, that can understand itself and the world through narrative, and that can imaginatively propel the arrow in all kinds of creative directions.
The ancient Greeks had two words for this: chronos and kairos. Chronos refers to what I have been calling clock time, an objective duration of physical movement, ordinary time measurable by a calendar in which one day is just like any other. Kairos, in contrast, is subjective and qualitative; it refers to the special place an event has in the flow of time, a moment when something happens that can only occur at that time. Christians sometimes refer to Kairos as “God’s time,” a unique window of opportunity in which certain actions can take place. In the New Testament kairos refers to a specific, God-ordained time sometimes called the “right time” or “appointed season,” as in Titus 1:3. The incarnation, the turning of water into wine at Cana, the crucifixion, and the resurrection are all understood as kairos moments.
Time wrinkles remind us of God’s time, give us a glimpse of eternity—whether that be in the fears and joys of our ordinary life, a spiritual experience, or a young-adult story. In Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, L’Engle writes: “In kairos we are completely unself-conscious and yet paradoxically far more real than we can ever be when we are constantly checking our watches for chronological time. The saint in contemplation, lost (discovered) to self in the mind of God is in kairos. The artist at work is in kairos. The child at play, totally thrown outside himself in the game, be it building a sandcastle or making a daisy chain, is in kairos. In kairos we become what we are called to be as human beings, co-creators with God, touching on the wonder of creation.”
Time travel, time perception, time paradox—all manifest our humanity as well as the enduring spark of divinity within us.